You used to stare at Orion when you were lonely, or homesick, or back home and wishing to god that you weren’t. Orion who follows you all across the globe. There was a comfort in knowing you could see from your bedroom window what someone else could see from their bed in their city or a village or the dunes five thousand miles away. Astronomy’s a big thing in the desert – people showing off their childhood knowledge or their wit at inventing entirely new constellations. That’s Taurus. The plough. The Ifor Williams trailer. The spatchcocked albatross. Yesterday a tourist told you Orion’s left shoulder was dead … long since supernovaed. Some kind of time-travel, this looking at the stars.
Now you have a local ‘phone that you hold all evening in your palm as you sit around the staff campfire, the battery quietly overheating and the charging port filling up with this unmaritime bone-dry sand. It won’t buzz tonight because the only person who’s ever called the number sits two feet to your right. But it’s full of potential, this little candy-bar of a ‘phone. You feel like a child of six on one end of a string-and-tin-cans walkie-talkie; your best friend of the day at the far side of the field but linked to you by twenty yards of twine. You can bury your nose in the soup tin, mutter his name, or tug out a message in Morse code. Reel him in at a pinch. Well, it’s just like that. Holding the silent ‘phone in your palm you can feel the string pull taut. A vague whiff of Scotch Broth in your nostrils.
Four puppies, fastened chokingly tight to a nearby bush, in disgrace after trying to climb into bed with the tourists, plaintively whimper through the gloom. They were happy to see you again, though they can’t possibly remember you. You left the day their eyes first opened: the day their mother went walkabout and you thought they’d be dead by dawn. ‘So you’ve been here before?’ asked the other volunteers as you swung your backpack down from the roof of the jeep. ‘How long are you staying? Sorry, *how* long?’ And yeah, fair enough … it is too long. A week should be more than sufficient. You can see this mirage of a town in one long dolly-shot from the top of the fort. Where the sandstone peters out into dust. The turbines all at ease on the horizon. Some of these kids (you’ve a decade on all of them) are on round-the-world tickets, scornful of your inability to break free of this one country. But there are semi-residents of this town who seem tethered even faster than you are: taking degrees here, quitting their jobs back home, buying shares in desert camps and informally marrying locals. You don’t know what to say to these people either. If you’re sick with envy or with fear.
‘Well, they asked me to visit again,’ you tell the other volunteers, like it’s all about repaying social etiquette. Maybe it is.
(‘You’re back!’ says the owner of the paan shop on the corner. ‘Remember me?’ asks the guy who sells the camel leather bags that you reckon are probably made of goatskin. Casually dismissing the expiry date on your visa, the lassi-man predicts you’ll stay another two months. Maybe three. ‘We call you topiwali,’ says a man you don’t know, and he hands you a garland of marigolds. You don’t know who ‘we’ are either. You don’t even wear a hat all that often.)
The boss’s left elbow, heavy with rum, rests on your right knee. You shift your weight a little, trying to keep the blood flowing. You contemplate shoving his elbow into the sand. Then you remember the bus ride from City Road to Muswell Hill not quite five months ago, your passport in your breast pocket, your third Indian visa freshly minted. You were crammed into the back left corner of the top deck, the intrusive but vaguely apologetic elbow of a total stranger pressed firmly into your ribcage. You recall the sudden breeze when he left you at Archway station. You hadn’t been touched in months.
A sudden change in the wind direction throws a fistful of sand and a blast of tuneless electronic thudding into your face. The tented camps at Sam Sand Dunes. This is the ‘non-touristic’ route, and you’re supposed to be out of earshot. You turn from it as you would from the threat of a slap. The tourists, sitting around a separate campfire, tediously high on bhang cookies, sway to their feet to chase their scattered Uno cards and ask where the noise is coming from. ‘Village marriage,’ says the boss. A practised lie. ‘Lot of people going to jail these days.’ The bhang-addled tourists laugh. Everything’s hilarious this evening.
The boss was married at twelve. His wife has four children. He thinks one of them might be his.
The wind shifts again, and in the lull you hear one of your countless new nicknames tossed between the lips of two camel guides. The less-than-splendid isolation of the monoglot – a little beacon of coherence in an incomprehensible sea of Marwari. Guman and Ali glance across the embers to see if you’ve understood, but you don’t look up. Eyes down, you feed more numbers into your ‘phone, as many as you can remember. People on the other side of the world you’ve no reason to contact. Just friends you can hold in your fist. It wasn’t unkind, whatever they said; it just wasn’t meant for you.
You turn to your left and peer into the scrubland where Soliya, a child of maybe twelve (fifteen if the tourists ask), cavorts among the hobbled legs of the snorting camels. He’s easy to spot as he’s wearing your new headtorch around his neck, on the highest, most battery-draining setting. The boss follows your gaze and tuts. The camels are all in heat, he says, and the boy is showing off too much. You nod. You did wonder why they were so troublesome today. You rode a peculiarly feisty one: some kind of wannabe dressage camel that wanted only to trot sideways. And you led an unusually recalcitrant one who wanted only to walk backwards. At least that one acted as a brake on the weird antics of your mount. You’ve a rope-patterned bruise across your thigh.
Soliya’s in his shirt sleeves in the bitter desert night. He dodges a kick. It chills you just to look at him.
‘Soliya,’ you shout. ‘Jacket.’
‘No jacket,’ says Soliya. He does have a jacket, but it’s tied around the neck of his camel, Lallu.
Shaking your head, you lever yourself to your feet with the aid of the boss’s shoulder. His thumb and forefinger briefly encircle your ankle. Freeing yourself, you wander over to the windbreak of broom bushes in a hollow of the dunes, to inspect the pair of mattresses and the burr-filled blankets set up a little distance … a prudent kind of a distance … away from the tourists and the guides. You’ll sleep here tonight, quite soundly as it goes, but with the ‘phone cradled in the hollow of your throat. You shiver again and stand flamingo-style to pick a thorn from the sole of your foot. The chewing camels sound like ticking clocks. The tourists laugh at nothing. Orion hovers above you.
And you’ll dream all night about the pre-pubescent padlock seller on platform nine at Delhi Junction. The snail-trails tracking through the dust between her nostrils and her chin. You watched her trawl the length of a sleeper coach, an infant brother balanced on one hip, and all the faces either turned from her or glared through her like she was a ghost when she peered in through the barred, glassless windows; starry-eyed, like even that grubby roach-infested carriage was another world. ‘Padlock, sir, padlock,’ she chanted in a monotone as the baby balled her ragged kurta in its fist. Twenty shiny steel chains dripping from her shoulders.